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Compassionate Leadership Responses to Sexual Assault Allegations

I have been reluctant to use this blog to comment on issues in the public space but I feel compelled to provide some understanding and guidance for leaders and colleagues when it comes to sexual abuse survivors. Our political leaders are not setting a very good example and I believe we can do so much better in our work places.

Before I went into consulting, I was a psychotherapist who specialized in treating survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I studied, taught and wrote about the impact of such heinous actions on young victims. After 40 years as a professional, I can tell you with respect and reverence for these survivors, hearing their stories and facilitating their recoveries was the most meaningful work I’ve done. It is with this background that I offer some guidance.

As a leader or a peer, you are working side by side with survivors. They are represented everywhere in our population in astounding numbers. Knowing this, you need to be informed and prepared to show compassion as you navigate the specific work related issue that may cause someone to reveal their past. Survivors are constantly managing things that may trigger a painful memory; often through awkward habits, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. If something has occurred at work that exposes peculiar thinking or actions, how this gets handled can make an enormous difference. The person will either feel understood or re-traumatized. Obviously, it is not your job as a leader to know the private details of your staff so you can avoid any potential land mines. But it is your job to respond respectfully when the mine explodes.

Here are a few things to know that can deepen your understanding of what an abuse survivor experiences.

Ordinary development is disrupted. Think of yourself as a second grader or a high school sophomore. Remember how you understood the world, how you interacted with peers or your family. Envision what your body looked like and how you felt about it. Think about what your interests were. Now imagine that someone more powerful came along and violated you sexually. Regardless of events that transpire next, you are forever emotionally and cognitively frozen as a 7 or 15 year old. Now picture yourself trying to fit into the normal flow of life as you turn 20 or 35 with persistent intrusive thoughts that take you back to that life altering moment. Are you the adult or that frightened child? A little bit of both.

Clever coping mechanisms will be created. Children will do whatever is necessary to survive. Each survivor can tell you precisely what “quirks” they have brought into adulthood. For one it is obsessive washing. For another it is needing multiple exits. Hyper-alertness, constant placating, hiding, detailed contingency planning. If you have colleagues who have some unusual anxieties or coping mechanisms that they tell you have been there since childhood, chances are they suffered abuse. These strategies may look childish or maladaptive in adulthood, but they were lifesavers all those years ago so they are hard to let go of.

Acting normal. Accent on acting. At the moment of the assault, any semblance of fitting into the mainstream is over. Feelings of shame, guilt, impotence and being exposed are intense and constant. Survivors feel this so strongly inside their beings that they assume it shows on the outside. Every effort is made to seem like nothing ever happened. Sure, they are newly quieter, more socially withdrawn, skittish and awkward but they go to great lengths to hide what happened. Even if those efforts are not too successful.

Living with secrets and shame. Most victims do not come forward at the moment the abuse occurs usually because of a combination of verbal threats from the attacker and a deep sense of shame. This enormous thing happened but the young person must never reveal it. To people who have not experienced abuse it is very difficult to imagine not telling someone. But to all survivors it is just the reverse; they can’t imagine the new horrors that would befall them if they did tell someone.

The quandary of how to feel safe, secure and trusting. If the abuser was known to the survivor, all sense of safety ends. Even if the abuser is not known this occurs but the double whammy of betrayal by a friend or family member or priest cannot be overstated. If these are the people in your life that you trust and one of them violates you so egregiously, where does that leave you? How can you possible regain any sense that the world is a safe place and that others won’t harm you again? As adults they may appear distant, mistrustful or not comfortably joining in.

For most, their inner strength prevails and they go on to lead productive lives. They have struggled to find a way to cope with the devastation that is still alive in their beings. You will experience them as bright, kind (if not aloof) and good workers. And occasionally, you may need to have difficult conversations with them about odd or inappropriate behavior or reactions. You will have trouble creating a consistent picture of this person.

Here is some guidance for you as a leader:

  • Be mindful of unexplained anxieties. A woman is not likely to reveal her most intimate painful experiences in a work setting (or anywhere for that matter) so you will not know explicitly that this person is a survivor. But if you observe some of the behaviors or thinking listed above or unusual levels of anxiety that don’t seem to fit the moment, compassion suggests treading lightly. If you have well trained HR professionals who have the sensitivity to deal with more challenging emotional situations, you may want to include them in discussions and problem solving.
  • Be acutely aware of power dynamics. All abuse is about power and control over the vulnerable. You are the boss who can dole out consequences and ultimatums. If you are a large man and the woman before you is smaller, beware of your impact. If your style is aggressive, dial it down. This is good advice in general (why would you abuse your position and power under any circumstances?) but more generous with a survivor.
  • Offer respect and support. Listening without minimizing or discrediting a person’s story (if shared) is baseline behavior. Words that are helpful: I can’t imagine how horrible that was for you, what a remarkable person you turned out to be, I believe you, tell me what would be helpful in this situation. Words that are not helpful: I don’t run a mental health agency, I can’t believe you still think about something that happened so long ago, It couldn’t have been so bad if you didn’t tell anyone at the time. It’s true that you don’t have to attend to people’s mental health issues but, as a leader, finding compassionate solutions to make the work place feel safe is your responsibility.

I have said it here before, corporations can set a high bar for compassionate and civilized leadership. Be one of those leaders. Don’t let the politicians or anonymous Twitter ranters shape this dialogue. You’re better than that.

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